Story and photo by Lia Tamborra
Upon arriving in Johannesburg, South Africa for a semester of study at the University of the Witwatersrand, I immediately expressed my interest in traveling to Lesotho. My program director replied with a bellowing laugh and informed me that if I wanted to go there, I should at least pronounce it correctly: “Leh-SOO-too.”
Lesotho, a small, landlocked country near South Africa, is known as the “Kingdom in the Sky.” It is the only country in the world that is entirely 1,000 meters above sea level. With its constitutional monarchy and stone huts, it is an island of tradition amidst the developing country surrounding it.
During orientation, I found myself drawn to a club advertisement that read: “Wits Snowski Club: Let’s not think, let’s have a drink.” While I did not plan on skiing, Snowski had promoted a trip to the mountains of Butha-Buthe, a province in the northeastern highlands of Lesotho.
Two weeks later, I was in a red Chico with a rowdy bunch of South Africans, rambling down a deserted highway at speeds that made me happy I do not think in kilometers. Five hours out of Johannesburg, I spotted the landmark that meant we were reaching the border: a mountain, the spitting image of a voluptuous breast.
At the border in Caledonspoort, we were greeted by a large billboard of King Letsie III, with the inscription “Welcome to Lesotho, Kingdom in the Sky.” When the border agent saw my American passport and questioned my political beliefs, I assured him that I was a staunch supporter of Obama. He stamped me and we were on our way.
We drove for another hour-and-a half up a narrow unlit road that snaked through the mountains. Most of Lesotho has no electricity, so through the Chico’s sunroof, I saw a star-littered sky unspoiled by city lights, with constellations I never knew existed.
The moment we arrived at Club Maluti, the small mountain hideaway with dormitory style houses, my awe was disrupted by a bone-chillingly loud stereo on which the Ski Club members blasted early ‘90s American punk rock.
The next morning, I awoke to a brilliant view that had me checking my pulse to make sure I wasn’t actually in a J.R.R. Tolkien novel. Nestled in a valley of rolling hills of the Maluti mountains, I saw hay and stone huts in the distance beside a cascading waterfall, and decided it was time for a hike. I timidly traipsed past goat herders and crossed paths with a proud man in a billowing red cloak atop a donkey. I lowered my eyes—this was one of King Letsie’s royal horsemen!
When I returned from my hike, we all hopped in our vehicles to go “gorge jumping,” apparently a highly fashionable activity for skiers who live in a country with two-month winters. This consisted of standing on the edge of a cliff for about half an hour, shaking with nervous glee while working up the courage to take the plunge into the rushing river 50 feet below. Goat herders came from all around to stare in bemusement at our silly troupe.
We spent the sunset at the highest point in Lesotho, watching a hot pink sun dip below the crest of the Kingdom of the Sky. The crew set off fireworks, bringing modern-day excitement to the hill-dwelling countrymen.
The next morning, we made our steep descent through the mountainous country, catching the grandiose views and dramatic drops that had been steeped in darkness on our way there. As we neared Johannesburg, the pastoral landscape was overtaken by a familiar urban sprawl, and though the skyline was now punctuated with skyscrapers instead of mountains, I felt the promise of journeys to come.